Driving throughout the Land of the Midnight Sun at any hour of the day or night … stopping to picnic by a roadside waterfall and chatting with locals at a tucked-away hot spring … camping amid an expanse of green fields or by a glacier. I’m convinced Iceland is one of those last frontiers where travel can still be spontaneous, freedom can be found on the open road, and families can delve into history, culture and natural wonders while feeling safe and welcome. After two weeks exploring the vast array of things to do in Iceland, we lost count trying to tally up all we loved, but here are 20 moments, places and experiences that wowed us.
1. Downtown Reykjavik. We didn’t expect to love Reykjavik; after all, Iceland is known for its nature, not its city scene. But Reykjavik’s pedestrian-friendly downtown sector is bustling with shops, bars and souvenirs. Definitely stop at the Hallgrímskirkja church!
2. Reykjadalur Hot Springs river. About 40 minutes south of Reykjavik, the small town of Hveragerdi appears to be practically alive with geothermal activity; from the crest of the hills overlooking town on the Ring Road, you can see steam rising from nearly every green slope. Follow signage to Reykjadalur, which is a 3.5-km hike to a hot springs river. The path is steep and can be muddy, but the reward is big: At the river, you’ll find a boardwalk leading to various places to enter the steaming water and soak your tired muscles.
3. Alfaskeid campsite. Campgrounds are called campsites in Iceland, and if you’re used to the North American version, you’re in for a surprise. Most Icelandic campsites are placed on open, green fields, where families drive camper vans directly onto the grass and pick any spot they like. This campsite near Fludir was located on a dirt road amid horse pastures, and we enjoyed it without another camper in sight.
4. Thingvellir National Park. No trip to Iceland is complete without a tour of the Golden Circle, and this national park is a highlight. The main attractions include sites celebrating the rich Viking history of the area and the location where you can see the shifting of tectonic plates (over the course of millions of years).
5. Laugardalslaug public pool. Iceland has wonderful public pools in just about every town. Families can soak, take hot showers if they’re camping and enjoy saunas and steam rooms, all for very low prices. Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik is Iceland’s largest, with water slides, playgrounds, multiple hot pots, steam rooms and children’s pools. Plan to stay at least half a day.
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6. Seljavallalaug Hidden Hot Springs. While less hidden than it used to be, Seljavallalaug is still uncrowded and feels remote. Located in southern Iceland in a tiny valley with green mountains rising all around, this man-made pool utilizes the natural geothermal activity of the area; it was created the early 20th century for the purpose of teaching local children how to swim. It is not as hot in temperature as some springs, but it’s perfect on a warm day and only about a half-mile hike out.
7. Laugarvatnshellir Cave People tour. This lovely tour is still unknown to most tourists, as it’s new in 2017. Located outside Thingvellir National Park toward Laugarvatn, you’ll see the little house (think hobbit house) cut into the hillside before you arrive. The tour takes takes you up the hillside to see the cave an Icelander couple made into a rudimentary home at the turn of the 20th century. The single-room house is restored in a historically accurate way, and includes a sheep barn and cow barn built into the rock.
8. Vatnajokull National Park. This was our favorite Icelandic national park, thanks to its dramatic volcanic history and glacier. The visitor center at Skaftafell has a lot of good information; start here and pick a day hike to try. We opted for a loop of about 6 km that took us high up the mountain to spectacular views of Iceland’s largest glacier, Skaftafellsjokull, then cut along a ridgeline to dip back down to stunning Skaftafoss (certainly a highlight of the park).
9. LAVA Centre. The brand new LAVA Centre at Hvolsvollur is a good stop in southern Iceland before you reach Vatnajokull. This highly interactive, tech-heavy museum answered a lot of our questions about the geothermal and volcanic nature of the region, which really helped us understand the lava fields, glaciers and volcanoes we saw the following days.
10. Laudar campsite. Another top campsite, Laudar is located in west Iceland in the farmlands just below the Westfjords. It’s the perfect jumping-off point for exploration of this area, and has both a campsite area and a hotel, plus a public swimming pool complex and its own hot pot (a small pool of hot water sunk into the ground). That’s right: a stone hot pot with naturally flowing water sits right in the heart of the campsite.
11. Snaefellsjokull National Park. Located on the west side of Iceland on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Snaefellsjokull features a big daddy volcano (unfortunately covered in clouds during our visit), as well as black sand beaches with interesting rock formations, caves and lava tubes, and cinder cones. The park is located past the fishing village of Olafsvik, with a visitor center at the spaceship-looking lighthouse about three-fourths of the way through the park. See great views of the ocean and sea stacks here, then book a cave tour a few meters down the road.
12. Hot pots of Flokalundur. Very few tourists drive all the way to the Westfjords, but it’s worth the breathtaking (and sometimes knuckle-biting) drive. This hot pot experience is located right on the ocean, allowing bathers to jump from the hot, bubbling water directly into the sea and back again. There are no changing rooms and no entry charge; just park your car and enjoy!
13. Secret Lagoon. Is this lagoon near Fludir really a secret anymore? Probably not, but we don’t care! Located right off the Golden Circle, Secret Lagoon is half-formed by natural rock and half man-made; fed hot water from bubbling geysers nearby; and completely blissful. Expect some crowds, though.
14. Hot pots of Drangsnes. The public pool on the Steingrimsfjordur fjord in the north has all the usual amenities, with a location right on the sea. Best of all, the town has arranged for free hot pots to be placed and maintained right on the beach, should you not need the added amenities of showers.
15. Vik. This little coastal town at the very southern end of Iceland is known for its black sand beaches at Reynisfjara. The turn off Route 1 for the beach is just west of town, and a great place to see the basalt-column geological formations Iceland is known for. You can also see puffins, apparently, but we only saw other seabirds making their nests in the cliffs.
16. Kirkjubaejarklaustur. We loved this little village, which has a lovely waterfall at the end of town (take the hike up to the impressive lake at the top) and the Kirkjugolf (church floor) natural rock formation — once mistaken for a man-made church floor. It’s located just a few meters down the road from the N1 gas station and is easy to access.
17. Efstidalur II. This working cattle ranch in Laugarvatn is a farmstay experience. The farm hotel is in an excellent location to explore all the sights of the Golden Circle. They serve breakfast and dinner (not included in the $140 room rate for a double) and have a wonderful ice cream parlor downstairs.
18. N1 gas stations. Didn’t expect a gas station to be on a top 20 list? In Iceland, which has many remote areas and towns with few other businesses, these stations become important to their communities. Families can get the Icelandic version of cheap fast food here: hot dogs with all the toppings. Some have extensive soft-serve ice cream stations, too.
19. Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. These waterfalls are definitely worth the stop. As you drive along the Ring Road, you’ll see plenty of others, but most are on private property behind the quaint farms of this region. At Seljalandsfoss, you can walk behind the falls and explore two others on a walking path to the left. At Skogafoss, hike up the steep stairs to the top of the waterfall, or, if you’re ambitious, continue on the start of the Fimmvorduhals trail. This 25-km trail between Skogar and Thorsmork is divided into three sections, the first of which is called Waterfall Way.
20. Settlement Centre. At the bottom of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, you’ll first enter Borgarnes on 60. Go to the Settlement Centre, one of the best museums in the region. It’s located by the harbor in a warehouse, but inside you’ll see the history of the Icelandic settlement era and learn more about its famed Sagas.
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Editor’s Note: Photos by Amy Whitley.
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